The main purpose of today's meeting is an update on children and youth affairs issues with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. I welcome her and her officials, Mr. Jim Breslin, Ms Mary McLoughlin and Mr. Peter Hanrahan, to the meeting this morning. In advance of today's meeting members submitted questions to the Minister but members are a little unhappy at the late arrival of the replies. Perhaps the Minister could examine the issue of a more advanced notice of replies with her officials. I hope we can reach an accommodation in that respect. Members submitted their questions at least a month in advance. It would be welcome if the replies were available five days in advance of the meeting.
Children and Youth Affairs: Discussion
I will make sure that happens in future.
I invite the Minister to make her opening remarks.
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to address the Joint Committee on Health and Children again this morning in the quarterly review of the activities of my Department. Today’s meeting provides another opportunity to bring Deputies and Senators up to date on the developments in my Department since we last met in July. Members are familiar with a number of the initiatives so I will summarise what is in the text.
I published the Child and Family Agency Bill and it is due to come before the committee on 22 October. We will also introduce amendments to deal with the changes to the preschool sector during the course of the committee discussions. Those are the changes relating to the need to register and the basic qualifications that will be required. The Bill will give inspectors more authority to demand changes so that the services have the highest standards and to ensure that it will not be necessary to go to court to demand the changes.
The board members have been appointed to the family support agency. The work of establishing the agency continues. As the committee is aware, a huge amount of work has been done in setting up what is effectively a shadow agency in the past year, with a reduction in the number of managers from 36 to 17. A new management team is in place and all of the HR issues have been addressed. A total of 4,000 staff have been informed they will be employees of the new agency. Everything is working towards the establishment of the new agency in the new year and considerable progress has been made. I thank everyone who has been involved in that regard. As the committee is aware, the new child and family agency brings together children and family services, the Family Support Agency and the National Education Welfare Board.
In terms of legislative priorities for this Dáil session, in addition to bringing the Child and Family Agency Bill through the Houses work is continuing on the preparation of the Children First Bill and good progress has been made. Deputy Troy inquired about the children (amendment) Bill. I hope it will be published in November. Much progress has been made in that regard. I hope the Bill will go through the House before the end of the year. The Government has approved the heads and general scheme of the children (amendment) Bill 2013. That will provide for the amalgamation of the three different units on the Oberstown site. It will also ensure there is improved management and operational efficiencies on the site. Building work has commenced on the Oberstown site. All of the contract details were finalised in recent weeks, including the various bonds which were complex and had to be negotiated. All of the planning has been done and the building work has commenced. In effect, next year we will be able to move 17 year olds from St. Patrick's Institution and there will no longer be 16 year olds or 17 year olds in this country in an adult prison.
I wish also to ask the committee to discuss the heads of the adoption (tracing and information) Bill once it is published. This legislation touches on very complex legal and constitutional issues. At its core is the competing right to the privacy of a natural mother and the interest of an adopted person in establishing their history and identity. I believe it will be necessary to have an open discussion on the matter in committee so that the various issues can be teased out. Many of the organisations representing people who have been adopted will want to give evidence to the committee. That should be an important part of the public consideration of the issues. It is clear that we have moved very far in terms of the concept of open adoption and people wanting to get as much information as possible but there are extremely difficult constitutional issues relating to privacy in this country. There are high expectations of the legislation but difficult, complex legal parameters are involved and that will require a good discussion and fairly complex committee hearings in order to tease out precisely what is involved in an Irish context. Other countries are doing it but they do not have a Constitution, as we have. I suggest that the committee would take the heads of the legislation and hold public hearings to examine the constitutional and personal issues involved in trying to develop the legislation.
We were due to submit the third and fourth consolidated report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. Both reports have been completed and forwarded to the UN. We will be called to report in due course. The third report was delayed but I am pleased that both reports have been completed. They have outlined the various changes on which we have embarked in the Department and the various initiatives that have been taken.
My Department is progressing the preschool quality agenda to improve quality in early years services and enhance the regulatory environment. Changes to the Child Care Act 1991 will be discussed by this committee on 22 October. It will include increasing the qualifications of all staff in preschool services to a minimum standard at FETAC level 5, improving the quality and curricular supports for preschool services when implementing the Síolta framework and Aistear curriculum and implementing new national quality standards.
Last week, a successful conference was held with the NCCA, National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, and Early Childhood Ireland on implementing these new standards. Various early years intervention projects have evidence of how successfully the Aistear programme is implemented. We do need to establish a mentoring scheme in preschools. Pilot projects have been completed in this regard and it is a question of ensuring we have the budget to roll out the full mentoring scheme. Later today, I will launch the report of the expert group report on early years strategy. I pay tribute to the group’s chair, Dr. Eilís Hennessy, department of psychology, UCD, and its members.
Since July almost 1,000 preschool inspection reports have been published online, which accounts for almost 40% of all preschools. Officials in my Department and the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel fast-tracked legislative proposals to the provision of preschool services so they could be brought forward on Committee Stage of the Child and Family Agency Bill 2013. I thank the officials involved.
In addition, my Department, in conjunction with the preschool inspectorate, is working to develop new protocols on regulatory compliance to provide greater clarity and consistency of approach in the way inspection reports deal with findings of serious non-compliance as opposed to minor breaches and full compliance. National quality standards for preschool services will be launched before the end of the year. This will form part of the new regulatory environment and inspections system.
Before the end of this year I intend to publish my Department’s national policy framework for children and young people. The framework will run from 2014 to 2018, encompassing children and young people from birth to age 25. It will be supported by a number of more detailed strategies for specific age cohorts including the early years strategy.
I made a presentation to Atlantic Philanthropies requesting it to continue to support area-based poverty initiatives. I am pleased it gave us €14 million to continue in this work. The Government has matched this funding, meaning we can continue the work in nine new areas, as well as the three existing areas, Tallaght, Ballymun and Darndale. We will be identifying the areas that will benefit from this intervention programme over the next three years, based on objective criteria. I hope to be able to bring proposals for the extension of the scheme over the next two weeks. It is important that local organisations in the areas chosen work together to deliver the best outcomes. We have good research from Tallaght, Ballymun and Darndale about what interventions work. These will be mainstreamed into services and other projects the future.
There are 16 children services committees. I hope to build on these in the coming months with a view to establishing them in every county. We must ensure all relevant organisations are involved in the children services committees.
Recruitment of more staff is continuing to facilitate the expansion of the national children’s detention facility at Oberstown. On sexual abuse services for children and young people, yesterday I addressed an event organised by the Rape Crisis Network where I confirmed my commitment to the development of a co-ordinated national approach to sexual abuse services for children and young people. We have not had a national approach in the past. I announced the recruitment of four regional co-ordinators for services for children demonstrating sexually harmful behaviour. The report published by the Rape Crisis Network yesterday found 37% of perpetrators of sexual violence against child survivors were themselves aged under 18. We need to develop an approach to this age cohort. The recruitment of the four co-ordinators was recommended by the Ryan report and it will happen soon.
I thank the Minister for her presentation. The committee will be examining the report on the early years strategy as part of our programme later in the year.
I thank the Minister and her officials for attending the committee this morning.
Will the Minister confirm that a recently appointed manager in quality control and assurance in the Child and Family Agency has already left? If this is the case, will she explain why? It would be appropriate that all Health Service Executive staff moving to this agency must be interviewed so that the agency has the appropriate skillsets to deal with the front-line issues that will arise. Will the Minister give her views on this?
I welcome the fact the Children Act will be introduced in two weeks. We facilitated additional time for this Bill in the hope it will address concerns over what was omitted in the original legislation. For example, we hope it will specify inter-agency co-operation, deal with the provision of child and adolescent mental health nurses and so forth. Will the Minister confirm that these areas will be addressed?
It is disappointing that the adoption (tracing and information) Bill has still not been published. Like others, I have been requesting it for 18 months. I hope it now receives the necessary attention and priority.
A person's basic and fundamental right is the right of his or her identity, and this needs to be addressed.
On preschool services, I acknowledge there has been a greater emphasis on this area and I welcome this. In the Dáil I asked about additional inspectors prior to the summer recess. The Minister, in consultation with her colleague, the Minister, Deputy Howlin, was to receive authorisation for additional inspectors. Can she update us on that this morning? Has every area got an inspector now? In terms of ensuring that there is an appropriate training fund, can she signal whether she would be in a position to launch a training fund for this sector after the budget next week?
On the children and young people policy framework, in reply to a parliamentary question on 20 June 2012, the Minister indicated that document would run from 2012 to 2017. It has now been pushed out to run from 2014 to 2018. Can she commit to that this morning?
On the Irish youth justice service, in May of this year the Department was summonsed to court to explain the lack of capacity for youth offenders. I acknowledge that the Minister has done a great deal of work on the Oberstown development and future capacity should not be an issue. However it is a major issue at present. Only three weeks ago, in Limerick, a young offender who was a threat to himself and to the wider community had to be released on bail on a number of occasions because there was nowhere to send him. On his third occasion before the courts, the method to deal with this teenager was to put him in a public ward in a hospital from where he absconded. For a guy who was a threat to the wider society, the State's answer was to put him in a public ward in a public hospital. That is not appropriate. It is not right.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta.
Will I get a further chance because I have a few more issues to raise?
I hope so.
I welcome the Minister and her departmental colleagues.
The last words in the Minister's opening address to the committee this morning are that she looks forward to continuing our partnership. That is exactly as I see my role, as spokesperson on children and youth affairs, in the relationship with the Minister and her Department. However, at the outset the Chair highlighted the long delay in receipt of responses to signalled issues by members of this committee that, I am sure, if we were to check on the submission times, date back six weeks. It is not only a matter of three, four or five days. The Minister, as a Deputy, will appreciate three issues I tabled for address with her. I got the response to one of them at half past nine when I walked in here this morning.
I am also highlighting something that I spoke to the Minister about recently. We have spoken on a number of occasions about the importance of joined-up thinking on a cross-departmental basis. I repeat my annoyance that the Minister's office continues to refuse parliamentary questions from me for oral address on the monthly engagement with the Minister where I ask whether she has taken the opportunity to engage with Ministers in other Departments on shared areas of concerned regarding children. The practice, as I have stated previously, is wrong because one cannot pigeonhole children into merely the narrow position that applies within the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Minister's concern, as I am aware personally and politically, goes far beyond that. These are reasonable questions. They are not vexatious. They are not meant to catch anybody out. I have had a significant number of my questions disallowed, month after month, and I am sick, sore and tired of it. I want the Minister to address that with the officials concerned so that it will not happen again.
On the Minister's opening remarks, I, too, want to hear what assurances she can give that we have no reason to be concerned in relation to senior personnel of the Family Support Agency. According to the announcement of 20 September of the members of the board of the Family Support Agency in transition to the new child and family agency board, there are seven members, along with the Chair, Ms Norah Gibbons. Is that the Minister's intended full complement of the board? When will the board be established and commence its work? Has that happened or is there a date now set? Will the Minister give us an update in that regard?
The Minister also indicated her legislative priorities in the course of her opening address here this morning. I am concerned that in her legislative priorities she referred to the adoption (information and tracing) Bill. We all worked hard in the children referendum campaign to ensure the successful passage of the proposals therein and I would have expected one of the priorities would have been the promised legislation - the outworking of the decision of the people. That relates to the adoption (amendment) Bill, which does not appear in the Minister's priorities at this point in time. I want the Minister to comment on that.
Regarding one of my questions on the Oberstown campus, the two Oberstown units and Trinity House, I welcome the news that a campus manager has been identified. I wonder whether the Minister is in a position to advise us on who is the intended appointee, when the successful candidate will be in position and whether it is an internal appointment. Perhaps the Minister would give us whatever information she is in a position to give.
I am also anxious to know the up-to-date position with the Victor McElfatrick report. Does the Minister intend to publish it, and if so, when? I have raised this matter with her previously. I am concerned that to many minds it would appear that this report has been buried, and that is not appropriate.
I will conclude with these last couple of points. Can the Minister comment on the relationship between management and staff now at the Oberstown campus? There have unquestionably been stresses and strains. Can she indicate what efforts are being employed to improve this and whether she is confident that whatever historical strains are in the past where they must be left? Regarding recruitment for Oberstown and the intended potential of the new campus there, is the process under way for the recruitment of additional staff that the Minister highlighted in response to a parliamentary question I put to her just over a month ago?
In association with all of that, is the Minister aware that a Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, report on one of the high support units in this country in my constituency, as is sadly the case with many other HIQA reports, has been used to apply a mallet rather than the necessary reforms, and that this high support unit will be closed on the turn of this month?
I welcome the Minister. I welcome the announcements she made, in particular, on the adoption (and information tracing) Bill, on which I would certainly agree with her. I understand some of the constitutional issues. As she will be aware, when we were looking at the children referendum Bill, I raised in the Seanad the right to identity and the missed opportunity to look at that issue, but I realised that greater good had to be done in putting forward the referendum. It is an issue on which we should hold public hearings. There is a wide body of opinion. I certainly would welcome that.
I asked about the lodging of the report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and I want to acknowledge that is submitted and thank the Minister. With the backlog with the committee, unfortunately, it will be 2016 - unless there is additional funding to the committee - when Ireland will get a hearing on its work up to 2011. There is a serious issue here about how we scrutinise and look at these issues.
A question I asked, question No. 10, goes fundamentally to some of the points that have been raised about reports that are produced. I noted, in particular, the special rapporteur reports. I agree that we all here want to work in co-operation, in partnership and collaboratively.
To do that, we all need to know what the agenda is. We all want to work together. The special rapporteur reports and many others, including child death reports, contain many recommendations. I do not know whether the Department has agreed to the recommendation in question or fundamentally opposes it. While the report is a special rapporteur's report, it does not have the seal of approval of the Government. Should we be considering a formal response system such that, when reports such as the one in question are produced, we would actually know the opinion of the Minister on the recommendations, how they would be implemented and the timeline? That would help us agree on the priorities, because we realise not everything can be done.
With regard to the special rapporteur's report, Deputy Naughten has a Bill before the Dáil. Many elements of that were in the 2007 special rapporteur's report. I tabled amendments on counselling notes, which arose yesterday at the Rape Crisis Network Ireland function. The principles were in the special rapporteur's report. There is a wealth of information that we are not utilising. An issue arises regarding our finding a way to have an implementation mechanism.
The issue of direct provision, which was in the papers this week, was raised by me in the last quarter. There is a role here for the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs in respect of the detrimental impact on children. Again, this was raised in the special rapporteur's report. Recently, Senators Trevor Ó Clochartaigh and Martin Conway visited Portugal to examine its provision system. Portugal is able to make provision for far less money using an appropriate human rights mechanism. It would be well worth it if the Minister could agree to meet the Seanad cross-party group working on the issue of direct provision. Members told me they visited the centre for unaccompanied minors, which is sponsored by Swatch, the watch company. Private sponsorship was actually found for so ostensibly sensitive an issue as unaccompanied minors. We could look to Portugal, which certainly faces even greater economic challenges than Ireland.
Regarding youth work funding, I am very concerned. The budget is next week so the Minister cannot comment in advance. However, I read the recent National Youth Council of Ireland press release which states that funding to youth work has been cut six times more than general Government funding. I noted only the other day that the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, actually recognised the role of youth work in the recent response and actions to address long-term youth unemployment. If I were to be optimistic, I would hope that cuts will not be as deep as might be expected. It is very important that youth work organisations be notified in time to make plans. Perhaps with the earlier budget cycle, we could notify organisations far earlier. I obviously have questions on the comprehensive review of expenditure.
Let me make my final point, on the child and family support agency, culture and work practices. Deputy Troy asked a question about senior management. I would be interested in knowing the response. I am worried about the HIQA report on the high support unit. I saw the announcement of its closure. I have heard that staff actually asked that HIQA go into the high support unit. What prompted HIQA to go in? How will the children and young people who are currently there be housed? At the time of the issuing of the report, there were four children and young people involved. To where will they be referred?
It states in the report that the national director ordered that doors be locked. I would like clarification on this. Did the national director for child and family services order that doors be locked in the unit? For me, this might cut to the core of the very culture and work practices for the new child and family support agency. Issues arise in this regard that we should explore.
I have asked for terms of reference for the board of the agency. I do not believe the Bill is enough. We need to know where responsibility lies for the chief executive, the board and the Minister. It would be better to have terms of reference for the board and the chairman.
Deputy Troy asked about the child and family agency. We have obviously taken a progressive approach to the establishment of the agency already. The staff are already working to the new line management system. There were interviews for the senior staff, management team and new line management. It would not be feasible to have interviews for all 4,000 staff. I am sure the Deputy would agree. For the most part, the changes were internal. That is the reality of recruitment at present. I was pleased that we were able to recruit a good management team. That is the team that Mr. Gordon Jeyes is leading. I will ask the Secretary General to make some comments on the micro detail asked about in regard to management change concerning the establishment of the agency and board. His comments will cover some of the other questions also.
Mr. Jim Breslin
There were questions about a specific individual's departure. That individual was recruited on a three year contract from England. The individual has departed at this stage, after a year in post. Obviously, we all make career decisions. People contribute for a time and move on. We will advertise the post publicly and recruit somebody as a permanent replacement. It is worth noting that, at the start of October, the chief operations officer, who will be the second most senior in the organisation, took up duties. That individual has a great deal of experience and has been director of children's services elsewhere. The individual is a social worker by qualification. There has been some further strengthening of the management team in addition to the departure the Deputies referred to. Does the Minister want me to comment on governance?
Mr. Jim Breslin
When the committee considers the child and family agency legislation and compares it with that establishing other agencies, it will note that there is more in it on governance than is commonly found. It is more specific on what the Minister and Department will do and initiate in terms of the performance framework and performance statements. There is more about the particular roles of the board members. Uniquely, the set of responsibilities of the board vis-à-vis management are set out. Particular responsibilities for the chief executive, in addition to those that will be delegated from the board, are covered. We have gone further than most public agencies in trying to set out a governance framework. Another factor worth noting is that there is a specific requirement in the legislation for the board to bring forward a code of governance. The board itself will have to adopt a set of governance requirements that will apply throughout the organisation, setting out various levels of authorisation that will be needed for various decisions. That will be submitted to the Minister within six months of the establishment of the board. We have reflected on the point made by the Deputy and we hope to continue to prioritise the matter. The Minister's appointments to the board should reflect a strong wish that good governance and a corporate approach to an organisation that will have 4,000 staff and a budget of €600 million should be at the heart of the operations of the board. That was a part of the decision-making process.
Could I ask the Secretary General to address the issues that Deputy Ó Caoláin raised on questions and the delay?
Mr. Jim Breslin
I wanted to address that personally. I take the point on the generality of the questions and the timeline associated with their arrival. We will work on that for our next appearance in order to be within the five day period set out. Question No. 4, on obesity, came over at 9:30 a.m. I apologise personally for that. I cleared all the questions, Nos. 1 to 17. I cleared the first three separately from the rest. Through my error, it was not clear that I had cleared No. 4. That only emerged late last night. I cleared the matter first thing this morning and it came over. They should all have been over at the same time, so I apologise about question No. 4 and will commit to trying to improve procedures before our next appearance.
Let me address some of the points made by various Deputies and Senators. The board has had its first meeting. It will continue with the work under the chairmanship of Ms Norah Gibbons. Once the legislation goes through the Dáil and Seanad and is finalised, the board will be called the board of the child and family agency. Effectively, there will be a transition to the work in question.
On Deputy Ó Caoláin's question about vacancies on the board, one more is to be filled. When that is done, the full complement will have been reached.
It is the same number as outlined in the legislation, so the current board would transition in as the board of the new agency once it is established in legislation. I hope this gives the information on the status of the establishment of the agency.
Deputy Troy asked about the adoption and tracing legislation. The delay is not for want of attention to it. I have attended a number of meetings on the development of this legislation. We have been getting ongoing legal advice from the Attorney General and other legal experts to guide the legal staff in my Department on the development of that legislation. The constitutional issue is the key. My personal view and my policy perspective is to give people as much access as possible to information on identity issues. That is best practice but the question is whether the Constitution can accommodate that and I am not absolutely sure that it can. People want this information and I want it to be supplied. That is why we will need to tease out the issues at committee hearings, so that people understand.
Deputy Troy's party introduced only a voluntary register. In the legislation I will have a statutory contact register. I will ensure all records are the responsibility of the adoption authority and are gathered together in one place. On an issue that arose yesterday, the records in Cork have all been gathered and are available to people. There is quite some demand for it and individual contact is being facilitated. Two years ago I said all the records were being brought together. There is a very big job to be done at a national level to bring all adoption records together.
There are very few records on illegal adoption. Illegal adoption was a criminal activity and the records are unavailable. Any records that exist tend to be personal records that might be held by people, doctors, hospital units or the church. In the legislation it will be statutory for everybody to declare the records they have and make them available in a central position. On identity and access to records where consent has not been given, the Constitution protects the privacy of the mother, and that issue must be teased out. We have had Supreme Court cases on this and there are some European cases at present. I would like the committee to examine these European cases and the national precedents in the Supreme Court and invite people working with the various groups of adopted people to come and make presentations. I will publish the heads of the Bill as soon as I can. Then the committee could be in a position to go forward with the hearings. It is not for want of work. The Department's legal team and the office of the Attorney General are doing a huge amount of work on this. It has been a priority of mine to try to publish it.
We have got permission to recruit additional preschool inspectors and that will happen. Extra money will be needed to deal with extra positions but the current vacancies are being filled. That will not ensure there is comprehensive coverage of inspectors around the country, however; extra funding will be needed for that. I will return to Deputy Troy on the matter. It is probably a post-budget discussion.
I am working to find money for a mentoring fund for the preschool centre. I am not in a position to announce that now but if we want a second year of preschool we must deal with the quality issues. We must build quality and availability of suitable staff. A mentoring scheme and a training programme are essential and I am making the case for that. It sounds very simple to say that we need a training and mentoring scheme. There are monetary and staffing implications and in the current budgetary situation all of that must take its place with all the priorities every Minister is bringing to the table. It is an essential element of building quality in the sector and I am working to ensure that.
I have said before at this committee that detention is a last resort for any child or young person under the age of 18. For some reason we had an increase in referrals to Oberstown around June and July. Recently we have had vacancies in Oberstown. We have created extra beds there. That is how the referrals go. We tend to get ups and downs in the numbers. I regret the situation where beds are unavailable but the courts have made more referrals. I will have discussions about that to try to understand who are the children who are being referred for detention and whether we can work more effectively at a preventative level in high support units and special care services, because sometimes the same children end up in detention. There is need for more co-ordination between the youth justice side and the care side. It is often the same children and it can be arbitrary whether they go into the criminal justice system or the care system.
Building has begun at Oberstown, which will mean we will have more beds, but we do not want to see huge numbers of children being referred for detention. It is and should be a last resort. On the other hand, if there are young people who need that facility we want to have the beds available. We do not always have beds available when the courts require them. There is a 24 hour response available to the courts so that when a vacancy becomes available and if there is a request they are matched, but it is a very fluid situation and it can sometimes be hard to match the availability of beds to the demands of the courts. The staff there are doing their very best.
Does the increase in referrals in June and July coincide with the end of the school year or Youthreach programs? Does the Judiciary take cognisance in its sentencing that sending a person to Oberstown or a unit in a public hospital ward is unacceptable? Is it appropriate for members of the Minister's Department to liaise with the Judiciary on its sentencing practice and policy?
I thank the Chairman for those questions. It is not clear. It is linked to court activity and sometimes coming up to the end of a court term one gets many referrals. Sometimes it is arbitrary depending on what cases are referred to the courts and the previous history. There is much movement of young people back and forth with court appearances. Some of them may have had six court appearances before there is a decision, or they may have broken bail. A wide variety of circumstances might apply. The Judiciary is very well aware that detention is a last resort. We will have discussions with the Judiciary on this issue because we want to do the very best for children. We need to identify whether there are community resources that could be developed for some of these young people.
Whether we speak of high support units, special care or detention, we are discussing people with very high levels of need. In many cases their families ask for them to be taken into care because they cannot manage them - for example, to high support units such as was reported in the Monaghan case. These are young people who are out of control. If we were in another country we would probably have a greater range of specialist services for these young people. I have reviewed the histories of some of the groups who have been in Oberstown recently and they are very similar to the children spoken about in the child death report, who have contact with many agencies, are high risk and can be extremely difficult to help and need a very specialist, co-ordinated approach. If one really wants to help these young people one needs to deal with proper risk assessment and interventions. Very often we need very specialist interventions and a range of services to help these people.
It is not easy for the residential staff working with them either. This is challenging work in the residential centres. When the young people were in St. Patrick's Institution as 16 and 17 year olds, there were fewer referrals for detention. Given that we have new facilities, it may be - I cannot comment on judicial decisions - that there is a belief that referring young people to Oberstown clearly is preferable to referring them to St. Patrick's Institution. That may be an influencing factor also.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked why the adoption (amendment) Bill was not on the A list. I cannot put it on it for a technical reason. The certificate cannot be signed while a challenge is ongoing and until the challenge is heard, we cannot progress the legislation. However, it has been drafted and was prepared before the referendum. When we are in a position to have the certificate signed, I can immediately put the Bill on the A list.
The Deputy asked about the Oberstown centre, the management and staff. Ms Janet Hughes, a former rights commissioner, is working with the staff and conducting an assessment of the rosters, which should help. I have appointed a board that is experienced in this area and its members have been heavily involved in trying to progress matters at Oberstown. They have given significant time to this task and made many unannounced visits to the facility. I have met the staff and management to discuss how we progress the issues involved. It is difficult for people to move from a scenario where they worked in three units on the campus to treating the campus as one unit, which is what we need to happen. It demands change by the staff and institutional change and support for these changes. The staff from the youth justice section in my Department have spent months working on these changes to ensure they will be carried through because if we invest €50 million in a new centre at Oberstown, we want to make sure we have the staff who can respond flexibly to the needs of young people in a new setting. There is a great deal of work being done from an industrial relations perspective. The unions and the Department are involved and huge efforts are being made to support the staff in these changes. I thank both the staff and my officials who have been working on this issue. However, change is difficult for people. Changing rosters is difficult. This is residential work with troubled young people, which is a challenging scenario. Everything is being done to support the staff and make sure the changes work.
With regard to the case in Monaghan raised by Senator Jillian van Turnhout, I have full confidence in the work Gordon Jeyes is doing and the actions he has taken. He has been directly involved. It is not up to me to talk about the detail of the actions he has taken regarding that centre, but he has directly monitored the situation there and took a decision to close it. He is an experienced chief executive officer in the new agency and took that decision in the children's interests. I do not believe it is a case of using a mallet rather than introducing reforms. He is also reforming the high support and special care units generally.
I asked about the appointment of the campus manager at Oberstown.
The external manager has been offered the job. It is an external appointment and we are awaiting final details before I can announce his name, but he has been interviewed and has agreed to take the job. We are in the process of finalising the details and I should be in a position to announce his name shortly.
I asked about the young people in the Monaghan centre. Its closure was announced but nothing was said.
There are four children in each unit and they are dealt with on a one-to-one basis. Therefore, approximately 25 staff have been employed in the centre because the rosters have to be covered in order that the young people in question have one-to-one care. They are in the centre and safe. There is a significant number of staff and significant monitoring. Care plans are being made in association with their parents and the staff to find an alternative placement for them.
The United Nations is behind in hearing the reports on individual countries, but we are ready, whenever that happens. I have addressed the question on adoption and tracing.
With regard to question No. 10, the Senator asked about the recommendations of the special rapporteur. She made the point well about there being many reports and recommendations and questioned what had happened to them. In this area, as we witnessed earlier in the context of the report on maternity care, there can be many recommendations, but what happens to them is an issue. We commissioned research which will be published within the next few weeks. I read a draft report on the issue by Ms Helen Buckley. We asked her to address the issue of all the reports that had been compiled on children and how effective inquires, tribunals or reports were and what had happened to the recommendations made. She and a colleague have written a report on the reports and made a series of suggestions on how to avoid having many recommendations not being implemented and the approach that needs to be taken to ensure that does not happen. The intention is to review current monitoring and reporting mechanisms and have a new framework in order that whenever a series of recommendations is made, we apply the framework. This will mean that reports will not lie on shelves. I take the Senator's point that it is no good having reports if they are not implemented. Ms Buckley's report will offer a positive way of addressing that issue.
The Senator also raised the issue of youth work funding. According to the comprehensive review of expenditure, €2.9 million will be taken from youth funding this year. I agree with the Senator that youth services have had serious financial issues to deal with since 2007. However, administrators are doing a good job. I would prefer if there were no cutbacks to youth services this year, but whether I can arrive at that point is entirely a budgetary question. Clearly, there are priorities in every area and despite the improved budgetary outlook in the context of the overall financial position of the State and while I would like to invest in youth services, we are still in a scenario where we must find savings of almost €3 million. I will do my best to ensure the figure is less than this, but that is what was outlined in the three-year programme.
I also asked about the Victor McElfatrick report. I am concerned that it has not been published. I also asked about the recruitment of additional staff at Oberstown. Will the Minister, please, comment on both issues?
I responded to the question on the McElfatrick report. I said it was an internal HR report that had to go to the board. I have not yet received a recommendation from the board on it and when I do, I will communicate with the Deputy. I am not sure if I will be in a position to publish it. It was an internal HR report that was commissioned, but I will ask the board if it can be published. If it can be, I will publish it. It may be that given there is a great deal of personal detail in it, it would not be appropriate to publish it.
Preparations are under way for recruitment of staff at Oberstown.
I am extremely pleased by and welcome the Minister's commitment on the adoption Bill and I hope it will be sooner rather than later. Does the Minister envisage the new family agency, which will be established relatively soon, will start with a budget deficit? If so is there anything we can do ensure it does not? We do not need a new agency starting off with one arm and one leg tied behind it. We all have large aspirations for its achievements and I ask the Minister to make a statement on this.
I thank the Minister for her very comprehensive overview on the work being done and I congratulate her on the work done to date. I wish to touch on an issue which the Minister has not dealt with; I do not expect her to give an answer here but I ask that it be considered. Young people, including children as young as ten, are dropping out of education and going down the wrong road towards criminal activity. They fall between three Departments, namely, Education and Skills, Justice and Equality and Children and Youth Affairs. A number of voluntary agencies provide services but receive very little support. I ask the Minister to put this on the agenda for the next six months to see whether more co-ordination is possible and perhaps meet some of the voluntary agencies working in the area. Voluntary agencies are trying to get these young people back into education, and the Garda Síochána is also involved, but funding is a major issue for some projects.
I believe the Minister and the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, will launch a three-year media campaign on obesity. Will the Minister elaborate on this?
I disagree with the Minister on all 4,000 staff being interviewed for their positions in the new agency. We should learn from our mistakes. When the HSE was established and the health boards were abolished, practically 100% of the staff of the health boards moved directly across to the HSE with no recognition of need or ensuring the appropriate skill set was in place. I appreciate it would be cumbersome and time-consuming, but it would also be the right thing to do to ensure the new agency starts with the appropriate staff from day one.
I welcome the fact the Minister is working hard on mentoring and the training programme. With regard to children ending up in detention, the Minister did not comment on whether she thought it was appropriate for a young teenager to end up in a public ward of one of our hospitals because at the time there was no place for him in an appropriate setting. This person, who was a danger to himself and the wider community, was placed in a hospital with sick and vulnerable children. The Minister spoke about the need for preventative care in such instances.
I submitted a question on social workers, and my colleague Senator van Turnhout held a briefing session for interested parties on the new child and family legislation. The Irish Association of Social Workers briefed us on the problems they see. It stated it was not aware the Minister had established a panel; that the staffing complement must fall below 80% before it can seek replacements; and that in one area in Dublin 300 at-risk children still live at home because no social workers are available to deal with the cases. We are falling down with regard to preventative care.
Is the Minister willing to meet a Seanad cross-party group with regard to direct provision to constructively look at what happens in Portugal and how we could use it in Ireland?
I thank the Minister for the overview of the work she has done. I asked a question with regard to the child and family agency which was not answered very clearly.
Was this question submitted by the Deputy?
Yes. I asked whether there will be a place for sectoral representation on the board such as from family resource centres. Will the Minister elaborate on this?
Unlike Deputy Ó Caoláin I was lucky that one of my questions was accepted because it ties into the work of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government with regard to foster allowance.
It was question No. 2.
I am glad the Minister intends to engage with the State bodies and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government on the issue. I have raised the issue many times because it is appalling and despicable that some local authorities consider fostering allowance to be reckonable income when calculating rent. It is done by only a few local authorities but it is just outrageous. The money is meant to be for the needs of the children being fostered. It is appalling and despicable. A lady who fosters twin girls lives in a local authority house. Her rent was €120 per month but because she fosters these two little girls her rent is now €480 per month. It is appalling this money is not being used for its intended purpose. I am glad the Minister will discuss it with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government because this issue seems to fall between the cracks. It seems to be everybody's problem but nobody's problem. The little girls will suffer because the money is being taken as rent.
With regard to family requests for children to be taken into care where they are out of control and perhaps violent or abusive in the family home, I know of a case where a child was taken into care at the request of the family but the child was subsequently brought back to the family home and the family is still not able for her because she is abusive and out of control. A social worker re-introduced her to the family home stating she believes this is in the best interests of the child. The other family members do not agree with this because there are other children in the home who suffer as a result of the abuse. The latest update I have is the social worker who stated she is better off in the family home is going on maternity leave in November and is closing the case. I would like to discuss this case with the Minister because it seems to be a terrible situation for the family. Other children in the home are at risk because people do not want to deal with the issue.
I will discuss the budgetary issues first. We are bringing together the budgets of the HSE child and family services, the National Education Welfare Board and the Family Support Agency. We are examining the most effective use of resources possible in this context. Over the past two years successful progress has been made on budgetary management. Undoubtedly we have seen this. Gordon Jeyes has led a change process on better management at national level but it is very challenging. I would like to point out some of the challenges which the sector for which I have responsibility is facing. We have an increasing population which creates a natural increase in demand, whether for fostering which Deputy McLellan spoke about, or because more children are coming into care. Our work on alerting the public to interrupt and report child abuse means we have more referrals which must be dealt with. The demographics are very challenging and put increasing demands on the services.
Just as we need more classrooms for children going to primary schools, we must consider the needs of those under six and the extra demands and services required by that cohort while making budgetary allowances to ensure we can respond in the way we need to. There are clear pressures on the agency and there will be extra referrals, and I am sure Senator Crown would say the same of hospital services. The issue goes across all sectors and there are increasing demands with associated monetary implications.
We have seen the figures for child protection referrals increasing and there is more awareness of neglect. There have been major increases in referrals of sexual abuse. That is what the services must deal with but at the same time we are - rightly - being expected to provide after-care for when people young people reach 18. There are demands for an out-of-hours services and a number of other pressures. If more money was available, those kinds of services should get greater support and there is no question otherwise.
There is a particular issue related to staffing, and social workers are exempt from the moratorium. We have very high numbers on maternity leave, with one team recently experiencing a particularly high number on such leave that reduced its complement to below 60%. If a person is on maternity leave, she stays on the books so it is not seen as a vacancy but it creates significant pressure. I am trying to examine how we can best deal with that in the services. A case management review is under way to see if social workers are expected to carry more cases than they ought to, and they are currently carrying very complex cases. I return to a point I often make in that it is not simply about more social workers being needed, although that may be the case, and it is equally about working with voluntary groups and co-ordinating work between those and the statutory groups to ensure we are using all the resources.
An improving economic position and better Government finances would mean we could begin to consider the resourcing of extra demands. We are all facing a difficult budget in the face of those demands, and I cannot say how well we will be able to respond to those demands in each case. The budget for the agency was maintained last year and the year before - there was a slight increase in fact - and I and the board members would much prefer that we would not start the work in a deficit. I will work to that end. We are trying to prioritise these issues, as a Government, in a scenario where there is great pressure on public finances.
We have raised the issue of co-ordinating services to combat early school leaving. The Senator mentioned a particular situation in Cork and we will follow up to see what is the precise difficulty. The idea of the new child and family agency is to bring together everybody who works, for example, on early school leaving. That would include education welfare personnel, who deal particularly with school completion. The statistics for school attendance in Ireland are very good and improving dramatically at primary and secondary levels. There is a cohort of young people who leave school early and we need to focus resources on them. That is the idea of bringing the three agencies together.
Deputy Fitzpatrick asked about the campaign we are running with the Department of Health. On 21 October, a three year new media campaign will be launched by me and the Minister for Health that will try to help parents deal with the obesity issue. It will include tips on preventing children becoming overweight. There are many other initiatives under way and just yesterday I met somebody interested in bringing our major sporting organisations together to launch a new initiative targeted at getting children more active, which is another important issue. The campaign is a joint initiative between safefood, the Department of Health, the HSE and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. We will work with all the relevant groups to ensure the information gets out but a whole-of-government approach is needed.
We are launching the early years expert group report today and if we want to deal with the adult or later childhood problems of obesity, the best method to use is early intervention. If we can target resources at children, we can look to prevent problems from emerging. By age three, 25% of children are overweight or obese, so we need to get in at a very early stage to interrupt the cycle of obesity.
Deputy Troy asked if I was satisfied with regard to the case in Limerick. The answer is obvious and of course I am not satisfied when that is the position for any young child who needs proper placement. The Government is committed to resources in Oberstown and that is why we are recruiting staff and putting in extra beds. We also need to consider why there has been an increase in children being referred for detention and what we can do at a preventative stage. I have highlighted the pressures on social workers and preventative services but we are working to get better co-ordination. We also have the review of case loads, and once that is done, we will be in a position to see precisely what is the situation with social workers.
I have already spoken to people in the Department of Justice and Equality about focusing on children in direct provision and I am happy to meet people about the issue. We are trying to ensure they attend the early childhood care and education scheme and get support when they are three and four. I have asked the Department of Justice and Equality to collect more information about the children in direct provision, and we need to understand more precisely their experience and what is happening to them. Queries regarding child protection arose yesterday and referrals are made in the normal way from direct provision to the social work services.
I have not gone for sectoral representation with the board of the agency and I will not do so as we need a board with skills to address the issues of setting up a new agency. I want people with experience in family resource centres and family support. For example, one of the people appointed to the board worked for 11 years in a family resource centre and such a person can represent the experience and interests of that sector. Deputy McLellan asked about fostering in Ireland, and the fostering allowance has been exempt from family income when assessments are made for a range of services. It would appear that some agencies or organisations are now seeking to have it included, and I will try to ensure there is a national approach and that it is excluded from an assessment of means so the money can go directly to the needs of children being fostered. I will have discussions about that. The Deputy also mentioned an individual case and I would be happy to have discussions with her about it.
I thank the Minister.
I thank the Minister and members for their attention and contributions this morning. I also thank the officials, Mr. Jim Breslin, Ms Mary McLoughlin and Mr. Peter Hanrahan, for being here. I remind members that next Thursday we will have the quarterly meeting with the Minister for Health and representatives of the HSE.